By Michael E. Ruane and David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 13, 2009
After the ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial was over, and the bugler played taps, and the artillery smoke drifted through bare trees, the youngsters from Strong John Thomson Elementary School recited the Gettysburg Address a second time.
They stood in their maroon sweaters and gray pants and skirts, their faces lighted by the morning sun, and began, "Four score and seven years ago. . . ." Behind them, deep in the shadows of the columned memorial, the huge sculpture of Abraham Lincoln sat, like a father watching his children.
And it seemed on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, a bright and blustery day that was filled with tributes, that the voices and faces of the children were as fitting a present as any.
Across the District yesterday, honors flowed for the nation's most revered president -- the lanky prairie lawyer and politician who came to Washington from Illinois to preserve the Union, wage the Civil War and help end slavery.
From the morning ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial, where last month the country's first black chief executive sat as president-elect, to Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated for his war against slavery, the 16th president was hailed as the creator of modern America.
In the Capitol Rotunda, where Lincoln's body lay in state after his death in 1865, President Obama stood with leaders of Congress and praised "this singular figure who in so many ways made my own story possible -- and who in so many ways made America's story possible."
"For, what Lincoln never forgot, not even in the midst of civil war, was that despite all that divided us -- North and South, black and white -- we were, at heart, one nation and one people," the president said. "Even as we meet here today . . . when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time . . . let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag."
There were celebrations across the country marking the Lincoln bicentennial, and at an auction house in New York, one of his handwritten speeches brought a record price yesterday, selling for $3.44 million. In the District, festivities took place beneath an almost cloudless blue sky. Even the wind helped, whipping gold-fringed flags and military battle streamers and carrying the echo of the 21-gun salute at the memorial across the water of the Reflecting Pool.
Historians and politicians were on hand, along with celebrants dressed in the ornate uniforms of Civil War soldiers. Several bearded men dressed as Lincoln, in black coat and stovepipe hat. They were unfailingly addressed as "Mr. President."
At the memorial, where several hundred people gathered to lay wreaths, historian Harold Holzer said that, without Lincoln, "we wouldn't be the America we know."
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, awaiting the start of the memorial ceremonies, said: "It's really a spectacular thing to realize that this country at this stage of our lives is able to look back with such respect and affection for this man who lived 200 years ago. I think it just shows that there really is a thread of history that comes from the past to the present."
The ceremonies at the memorial featured, among other things, the initial reading of the Gettysburg Address by the Thomson schoolchildren, along with retired Rhode Island Supreme Court chief justice Frank J. Williams, who stood at a podium.
But near the end of the speech, the wind blew Williams's papers, and he was unable to recite some closing portions of the speech. The 9- and 10-year-olds, who memorized it, were undaunted, and finished in style.
They recited it again later when someone asked, and because they knew it cold.
Meanwhile, at the newly renovated Ford's Theatre, where Obama appeared for a gala Wednesday night, the doors were officially opened to the public for the first time in 18 months.
Lines began forming as early as 7:30 a.m. outside the old brick theater on Tenth Street NW, with its tall eight-paned windows and gas-lighted carriage lamps.
John Lugo, 52, a financial adviser from Loxahatchee, Fla., brought his 12-year-old son, Giovanni.
"I wanted to be able to show him the booth," Lugo said, referring to the theater box where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while the president and his wife were watching a play.
Inside, visitors were greeted by the sounds of the Federal City Brass Band, clad in 19th-century attire and equipped with instruments from the 1860s and 1870s. A National Park Service ranger then recounted the assassination, and children from the District's Thurgood Marshall Academy recited more from Lincoln's writings.
"It was fantastic," said Bob Gabriele, 62, of Fresno, Calif. "I was sitting there thinking of all the problems that President Obama is experiencing right now, and then you see these bright-eyed kids onstage, and you realize, they're the future."